Saturday, May 21, 2011

Haslett, Adam. "How to Write a (Good) Sentence." SALON January 23, 2011.

Fish, Stanley.  How to Write a Sentence and How to Read One.  New York: HarperCollins, 2011.

This question of how forms of writing produce forms of thought is one that the literary critic and legal scholar Stanley Fish has been wrestling with most of his career. He first came to prominence in the late 1970s with his theory of "interpretative communities." This held that all readings of literary texts are inescapably bound up with the cultural assumptions of readers, an uncontroversial proposition now but one that quickly earned him the sloppy epithet of "relativist." In the late 1980s and early 1990s he turned the Duke University English department into the headquarters of the then-burgeoning "theory" industry before, in 1999, surprising the academic world by moving to the University of Illinois at Chicago, where he set himself the task of trying to renovate undergraduate education in basic skills like writing. Though he doesn't mention that experience in his new book, How To Write a Sentence and How To Read One, it's not far offstage. The problem with Strunk & White, in Fish's view, is that "they assume a level of knowledge and understanding only some of their readers will have attained," that is, the Cornell kids whose secondary education did at least a halfway decent job of teaching them the basics.

Fish's aim is to offer a guide to sentence craft and appreciation that is both deeper and more democratic. What, at base, is a sentence? he asks, and then goes on to argue that the standard answer based in parts of speech and rules of grammar teaches students "nothing about how to write." Instead, we should be examining the "logical relationships" within different sentence forms to see how they organize the world. His argument is that you can learn to write and later become a good writer by understanding and imitating these forms from many different styles. Thus, if you're drawn to Jonathan Swift's biting satire in the sentence, "Last week I saw a woman flayed, and you will hardly believe how much it altered her person for the worse," then, Fish advises, "Put together two mildly affirmative assertions, the second of which reacts to the first in a way that is absurdly inadequate." He offers, "Yesterday I saw a man electrocuted and it really was surprising how quiet he became." Lame, and hardly Swift, as Fish is the first to admit, but identifying the logical structure does specify how satire functions at the level of the sentence and, if you want to employ the form, that's a good thing to know. . . .


No comments:

Post a Comment